Cathy Caruth’s seminal work Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History suggests that at the centre of trauma narratives lies “a kind of double telling…between the story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the unbearable nature of its survival” (Caruth, 1996, 7). This ‘double telling’ is at the heart of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which revolves around the tragic mistake of the thirteen-year-old protagonist, Briony Tallis, accusing her sister’s lover wrongfully of rape, the drastic repercussions that her mistake has on the lives of others, and Briony’s struggle to come to terms with her guilt. In this essay, I argue that the entirety of Atonement can be read as a trauma narrative, with its focus on how Briony conveys the story of her traumatic event and its survival. I draw on trauma theory, specifically Dominic La Capra’s theories of traumatic recovery, to show how Ian McEwan portrays Briony as undergoing the twin processes of ‘acting out’ and ‘working through’ trauma, so that through the retelling of her story, she attains a limited degree of recovery and atonement for her sin.
Before I analyse how McEwan achieves this portrayal of Briony ‘acting out’ and ‘working through’ her trauma, it is necessary to provide an understanding of these terms, as well as how Briony’s false accusation of Robbie functions as a traumatic event for her. Derived from the Greek word for ‘wound,’ trauma can be broadly taken to mean both:
- Physical trauma, or an external bodily injury resulting from an extrinsic shock to the body
- Psychological trauma, or a psychic injury caused by emotional shock, the memory of which is repressed and remains unhealed (“Trauma, n.,” in OED Online)
It is important to note that trauma does not refer to the event itself, in this case, Briony’s claim that she saw Robbie rape Lola at the fountain. Rather, trauma is the emotional response that follows after the event; or, as Charles Figley, pioneer trauma scholar, puts it, “an emotional state of discomfort and stress resulting from memories of an extraordinary catastrophic experience which shattered the survivor’s sense of invulnerability to harm” (Figley, 1985, xviii). Briony’s false admission fulfills key criteria of a traumatic event—she persistently experiences memories of it, she attempts to repress these memories, and she spends her life obsessed with trying to make amends for her mistake—in other words, to overcome its trauma. Her act of testifying against Robbie ruins his life by causing him to be sent to jail on conviction of rape, thus killing his dream of becoming a doctor. Her later guilt can be paralleled to the guilt that war veterans feel after killing an enemy soldier, with its similar emotional burden of having extinguished a life. The first three parts of Atonement, as the reader later comes to realise, is an embedded narrative, a novel written not by Ian McEwan the author, but by Briony Tallis the character. Briony’s story can thus be understood as a trauma narrative, or a coherent story crafted by the trauma survivor to make sense of the traumatic experience as part of the recovery process (Rivka Tuval-Mashiach et al., 2004, 281). Through her trauma narrative, Briony performs the twin processes of ‘acting out’ and ‘working through,’ terms coined by Dominic La Capra to represent the two different ways in which survivors grapple with their trauma. ‘Acting out’ refers to the tendency to repeat the trauma, to ‘performatively regenerate’ or relive the past occurrence as if it were fully present, with no distance from it. ‘Working through’ is the acknowledgement and acceptance that the event has occurred, along with the adoption of distance from the event, and the recognition that the event exists in the past, and is related to, but not identical to, the present reality (La Capra, 1999, 713–716). While La Capra posits that these ways of dealing with trauma are distinct countervailing forces, they are not mutually exclusive. I argue that Briony first undergoes ‘acting out,’ by relieving the trauma in her memory, and then ‘working through,’ becoming a nurse, and telling her own story.
Briony’s own analysis of her action, and the effect it has on her, is a textbook example of La Capra’s idea of ‘acting out’:
Her memories of the interrogation and signed statements and testimony, or of her awe outside the courtroom from which her youth excluded her, would not trouble her so much in the years to come as her fragmented recollection of that late night and summer dawn. How guilt refined the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime. (Atonement, 162)
This passage makes clear the degree of internal torment that Briony repeatedly subjects herself to in the ‘years to come,’ due to her ‘fragmented recollection’ of that fateful ‘late night.’ The phrase ‘eternal loop’ echoes La Capra’s idea of ‘acting out,’ as the event is continuously repeated, embedded within the mind as a set of images to be played back and forth, with every ‘bea[d] of detail’ symbolising each moment etched into Briony’s memory. The metaphor of the rosary implies, on one hand, the perpetuity of the action, as praying the rosary is a lifelong practice; but also that for Briony, this agonising mental playback is done as an act of penance, a kind of self-torture inflicted to atone for her sin. It is worth noting how this paragraph, a sort of foretelling of how Briony’s testimony will affect her in the future, is placed at the start of Chapter 14, even before the reader knows exactly what Briony testified. This deliberate positioning indicates that Briony’s memory of the event is inextricably intertwined with her knowledge of how her memory of the event will affect her. In other words, Briony is only too aware that she is in the grip of trauma, but is powerless to stop it from devastating her.
Briony’s subsequent life decisions, too, can be understood as acts of penance. She chooses not to go up to Cambridge, and instead commences ‘nurse’s training’ at Cecilia’s “old hospital” (Atonement? 199). Elizabeth Weston views this as “a way to live the life Cecilia was living before the bombing cut it short” but criticises Briony’s method of attempting to atone—by “merely following Cecilia’s path and continuing to leave her testimony intact”—as being unlikely to improve either Cecilia or Robbie’s lives, and thus counter-productive (Weston, 2019, 99). I would argue that Briony’s decision to become a nurse is not merely an attempt to make amends with her sister and Robbie, a failing in that regard, but an action shaped by survivor’s guilt. Briony understands that her false testimony has inflicted severe misery on Cecilia and Robbie, and has thrown their lives into disarray—she cannot, in good faith, continue living a ‘normal life’ while they suffer as a consequence of her actions. Hence, she disrupts the expected course of her life—studying English at Cambridge—to follow in her sister’s footsteps. Becoming a nurse is Briony’s attempt at empathetic identification with Cecilia, to understand the emotional pain that her sister has gone through. By joining a profession that will cause her to suffer both physically and psychologically, “struggling to cope with the influx of casualties from Dunkirk as the horrors of injury, mutilation, and death pile up before her eyes” (Kogan, 2014, 65), In a gesture of solidarity with her sister, Briony imposes punishment on herself for her crime. If Cecilia cannot experience happiness, then neither will she.
Briony’s decision to become a nurse, however, can also be interpreted as an attempt to ‘work through’ her trauma. Her thoughts as she attends to a soldier with stomach wounds signal that her underlying motivation for working at the hospital is to make reparations to Robbie himself:
She thought too how one of these men might be Robbie, how she would dress his wounds without knowing who he was, and with cotton wool tenderly rub his face until his familiar features emerged, and how he would turn to her with gratitude, realize who she was, and take her hand, and in silently squeezing it, forgive her. Then he would let her settle him down into sleep (Atonement, 281).
The fantasy that Briony constructs, where she finds Robbie among the wounded and tends to him, obtaining his forgiveness in the process, shows how treating wounded soldiers is one of her means of atoning for her mistake, as well as how her trauma has affected even her everyday life as a nurse. That this is merely a fantasy is stylistically indicated by the run-on lines, which mirror Briony’s stream of consciousness. Briony hopes that in healing Robbie’s physical wounds from war, she can repair “the person whom she had destroyed” (Kogan, 2014, 66), and right the wrong she has done to him. The ‘sleep’ that Briony desires for Robbie in her imagination is a symbol of peace for both Robbie and Briony. It is clear that Briony sees Robbie’s reflection in the face of every soldier she treats. By stitching together the wounds of others, she attempts to repair her own damaged self. The descriptions of her removing “shrapnel…embedded in the flesh” (182), “clean[ing] an area six inches back, working her way right round the wound” (181), can arguably be read as Briony removing her own shrapnel of painful memory; cleaning her own gaping mental wounds. This imaginative reparation, where the healing of soldiers stands in for the healing of both Robbie and herself, involves an acknowledgement on Briony’s part that the traumatic event has occurred, and thus fulfills La Capra’s criteria that the survivor who adopts ‘working through’ must break away from the event and differentiate between the past and the present. Briony is hence actively trying to atone for her sins, and affect her own recovery.
The inclusion of Part 2 of the novel, an account of the war told from Robbie’s perspective, can thus be understood as Briony’s attempt to ‘work through’ her trauma by achieving empathetic identification with her primary victim. We know that Part 2 is construed entirely from Briony’s imagination, as she never had a conversation with Robbie before his death that would have enabled her to understand his story. Briony is unable to understand the agony that she has put Robbie through, first in jail, then in war, and her writing of his experience is an attempt to bridge this chasm between them. Brian Finney points out that although there is only one narrative voice in the novel, which turns out to be that of seventy-seven year old Briony, McEwan employs what Gérard Genette coined ‘variable internal focalization,’ where the focal character changes even though the narrative voice does not. In Atonement, the focal character switches from Briony, to Cecilia, to Robbie and so on, and this modal determination is a stylistic demonstration that Briony attempts to ‘project herself into the thoughts and feelings’ of Robbie and Cecilia, which is an integral part of her search for forgiveness (Finney, 2004, 75).
James Phelan sees Briony’s representation of Robbie and Cecilia’s consciousness as a “commitment to an ethical principle” (Phelan, 2007, 122), namely the writer’s ethical principle to employ narrative in order to ‘enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value’ (Atonement, 38), hinging on the “simple truth that other people are as real as you” (38). I would argue that it is also an ethical commitment to constructing the narrative faithfully, in order to achieve an understanding of Robbie and Cecilia that Briony herself lacked in committing her crime—for is not her mistake fundamentally a misunderstanding; a misinterpretation of the relationship between the pair, and an interpretation of danger for her sister where there was none? This explains the following passage from Robbie explaining why he believes Briony acted the way she did:
In her mind he had betrayed her love by favoring her sister. Then, in the library, confirmation of the worst, at which point, the whole fantasy crashed. First, disappointment and despair, then a rising bitterness. Finally, an extraordinary opportunity in the dark, during the search for the twins, to avenge herself. She named him—and no one but her sister and his mother doubted her…But he did not think his resentment of her could ever be erased. Yes, she was a child at the time, and he did not forgive her. He would never forgive her. That was the lasting damage (Atonement, 220).
This entire passage, readers later learn, does not consist of Robbie’s thoughts as they have been led to believe, but are rather Robbie’s thoughts as Briony imagines them to be. It is unclear whether these thoughts are an accurate interpretation of Briony’s underlying motivations, but the reader is tempted to ask, if Briony has complete control of the narrative, why make herself out to be the villain? Why declare that Robbie would ‘never forgive her,’ when this is a truth she cannot know for sure? Why not use the narrative as an opportunity to redeem herself, rather than depict Robbie as condemning her in his imagination? I believe the answer lies in Briony’s tendency to punish herself as part of her trauma. In projecting a grave indictment of herself in Robbie’s imagination, she embarks on a kind of self-flagellation, exposing herself to the anger he holds towards her in a narrative that she never experiences in reality. This is in itself an act of atonement, or a ‘working through’ of trauma.
Briony’s most significant act of ‘working through’ trauma is in her crafting of the narrative itself. This marks a transition from attempting to escape the trauma of her past by ignoring and repressing it, as she does in the story she submits to Horizon, depicting the scene by the fountain. The contrast between her story ‘Two Figures by a Fountain,’ where she “dedicates scores of pages to the quality of light and shade, and to random impressions,” concealing the larger story behind this scene, and the entirety of Parts 1 to 3 which weave together a gripping narrative, could not be more significant. Briony refers to ‘Two Figures by a Fountain’ as an attempt at evading the truth:
Did she really think she could hide behind some borrowed notions of modern writing, and drown her guilt in a stream—three streams!—of consciousness? The evasions of her little novel were exactly those of her life. Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella—and was necessary to it. What was she to do now? It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone (302).
The dashes and question marks indicate Briony’s emotional agitation, while the phrase ‘drown her guilt in a stream’ carries connotations of suppression, of holding her guilt underwater and drowning it. This is exactly the process of repression survivors who ‘act through’ their trauma often resort to; escaping the pain of their past by denying its existence. The image of a stream, a body of moving water, also suggests Briony’s longing for her guilt to be washed away. In writing her later narrative, Briony develops both the ‘backbone’ of her story and her own figurative ‘backbone’ of courage, confronting her trauma head on. If the short story ‘Two Figures by a Fountain’ represents her ‘acting out’ of her trauma, then in the full novel she writes about her mistake represents her attempt at ‘working through’ it. In writing out with painstaking detail the events of her past, Briony acknowledges their existence, but she also redeems herself in re-invention. By radically rewriting the story’s end, allowing Cecilia and Robbie to obtain the happiness in fiction that eluded them in life, Briony engages with “the moral responsibility she lack[ed]” (Pitt, 2009, 35) that fateful evening she accused Robbie of rape. Briony’s writing of the novel thus allows her to assert control over the situation through her imagination, and regain some semblance of order over the lives of her sister and Robbie. Briony’s “love of order” (7) has been evident since her childhood, in the neatly structured stories that she writes about worlds that are “made just so” (7), and so it is unsurprising that she turns to writing as a means to restore things to their rightful state of affairs. Briony’s analysis of her decision to unite the lovers is also telling:
I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet. If I had the power to conjure them at my birthday celebration . . . Robbie and Cecilia, still alive, still in love, sitting side by side in the library, smiling at The Trials of Arabella? It’s not impossible. (351)
Here, Briony directly addresses the reader, giving us access to her thought process. In her novel, Briony has the power to re-imagine an alternate reality for Robbie and Cecilia. She writes that this is an ‘act of kindness’[directed?] towards them, but it can also be read as a kindness to herself, to pretend that she could make reparations for the terrible consequences of her actions. Although Briony states that she is not ‘self-serving,’ is not the whole act of authorship an inherently selfish one? Perhaps the ‘oblivion and despair’ she mentions does not refer to that of Robbie and Cecilia, but the emotions that she fears will overwhelm herself should she refrain from writing this novel. The inclusion of ‘not quite, not yet’, and ‘it’s not impossible’ indicate that Briony still longs for forgiveness that the dead Robbie and Cecilia are unable to provide, and the way she describes the image of Robbie and Cecilia ‘sitting side by side in the library, smiling at The Trials of Arabella’ with meticulous detail suggests that this is a scene that has long haunted her consciousness. In uniting the lovers in fiction, assuming the mantle of repair of their love, she can delude herself into believing that the couple would have forgiven her, had she only been able to make her fiction a reality.
Yet there are key limitations to this attempt at ‘working through’ trauma. As Briony herself admits:
The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. (Atonement, 350–351)
Briony’s power as a novelist is simultaneously her limitation. Forgiveness requires two parties to be involved, but with her status as creator, there is no higher power who can judge her attempt at atonement and forgive her. Briony’s writing is responsible for breathing into being the entire world of the novel, and her characters, however realistic, are only characters, and cannot atone for the wrong she has done to real people.
This raises the question of whether Briony’s attempts to make reparations is even legitimate, if there is no one to witness it. For Briony, at least, the answer to this question is clear: “It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.” (Atonement, 351). Briony’s attempt at atoning is successful in the sense that it alleviates some sense of her own guilt. Although she is doomed to fail, she fails on her own terms, and achieves some degree of catharsis for her actions. As Brian Finney notes, “Robbie and Cecilia’s happiness cannot be restored to them by an act of corrective fiction. Nevertheless, the attempt to imagine the feelings of others is perhaps the one corrective that we can make in the face of continuing human suffering” (Finney, 2004, 82). It is the act of absolution that matters, not the outcome. Briony’s commitment to working through her own trauma may not right the immense wrong that has been wrought by her hands, but it does provide a balm for her troubled soul, as evident in the last line of the novel, “But now I must sleep” (351). It is only once she completes her narrative that she can attain blissful rest, absent of the trauma that has haunted her since childhood.
Kelly M. Rich argues that the burden of judging whether Briony’s attempt at atonement is successful or not falls on the reader. She notes that Briony “inhabits both guilt and atonement,’ and that Atonement leaves “the reader in the difficult position of having to judge the efficacy of her humanistic repair” (Rich, 2014, 506)—it is the reader who is the final arbiter of whether Briony deserves the forgiveness she craves. The reader is therefore an important silent figure in Briony’s trauma narrative, and given the subjectivity of the reading experience, with different readers likely to have different responses to the text, this amplifies how Briony’s ‘working through’ of trauma is an imperfect process—the novel “leaves open the possibility of not embracing Briony’s plea for empathy” (Rich, 2014, 506). Briony’s attempt at atonement, then, can be viewed as being repeated countless times anew in the mind of each reader, each with a different outcome. In my view, however, Briony’s attempt at atonement is achieved in the eyes of the reader. Throughout the reader’s journey with Briony, they see how her fatal error of judgment was borne out of misplaced good intentions; how the regret of her mistake is genuine, and how she spends her life obsessed with trying to ‘work through’ her trauma and atone for her sin. It is impossible for the reader to condemn Briony completely, and this understanding of her plight, or empathetic identification of the reader with Briony, serves as a kind of redemption for her.
Much has been made about Atonement as a postmodern novel, and a work of metafiction. In reading Atonement as a trauma narrative, readers attain a kind of empathetic identification with Briony as she ‘works through’ her trauma, allowing her to obtain the limited redemption she longs for. Rather than drowning Briony’s guilt in a stream of consciousness,, McEwan uses the narrative to let understanding of her plight wash over the reader, who in turn absolves Briony of her guilt. In doing so, McEwan alludes to the transcendental power of fiction to achieve atonement and heal the wounds that time cannot.
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About the Author
Sarah Ang hails from Singapore and is currently an undergraduate student of English Literature at University College London, due to graduate in June 2021. Her academic work has been recognised by the Alpine Fellowship Academic Writing Prize and the International Ayn Rand Essay Competition. She is an avid creative writer who has won multiple international awards for her writing, including first place in the Wilbur Smith Author of Tomorrow Award, first place in the iYeats International Poetry Competition, second place in the Blue Mountain Arts Poetry Competition and second place in the Walter Swan Poetry Prize. Her work has also been featured in publications such as Mithila Review, Alexandria Quarterly, Medusa’s Laugh Press, the Claremont Review, Idle Ink and the Forest for the Trees Journal, among others.